In a lot of ways, it could be argued that Rose Namajunas is the only really suitable title challenger in the strawweight division right at this exact moment. Her other principal competition can’t come close to matching her resume at the highest level, even if Tatiana Suarez seems like she’s rolling toward her first UFC title shot in a hurry, and Yan Xiaonan is currently in her fighting prime.
With just an 11-5 record in MMA, it’s not the numbers that make the case for ‘Thug Rose,’ rather it’s the history of high profile performance. In her near decade of time in the UFC, Namajunas has lost just four fights, three of those have been for UFC gold—her only other loss a scrappy and well contested split decision to future title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
She has multiple wins over strawweight’s first historically great champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, as well as victories over former champion Jessica Andrade and, most importantly, back-to-back wins over current champion Weili Zhang. With Zhang once against holding gold, after losing her title to Namajunas, it seems only right that the Trevor Wittman disciple be at the front of the line for next contenders.
Rose Namajunas’ struggle with motivation
Having had two stints as champion already under her belt, however, it’s become clear (at least from the outside) that the accolades in MMA don’t hold as much meaning as fans might expect for Rose Namajunas. When she lost her belt in a terrible showing against Carla Esparza, her post fight statements seemed like more of a shrug than a lament.
“I definitely got what I needed out of that fight,” Namajunas explained in an interview at the time. “I know that for the fans it was terrible. And I definitely pride myself on being a very exciting fighter and I’ve always had exciting fights. But I realized that being a mixed martial artist, I am an artist. And, you know, you don’t always have a Mona Lisa, right, sometimes you just have like splotches and you know abstract art pieces.”
If that doesn’t sound like the voice of a fighter filled with competitive fire to win, then the necessity to find that fire might better explain why Namajunas is making a move to flyweight that, by all appearances she doesn’t need to make.
“Weili’s the champ now, so what, I fight her a third time? I don’t know, it’s just not every interesting,” Namajunas told MMA Fighting back in August. “I’ve already fought Andrade and this and that and now she’s gone back down… Weili’s the champ, so then I could just beat her again, but I don’t know, to me it’s more than that. I want something that scares me.
“I want to face my fears. It’s just always been a part of the plan and yeah, I could keep doing the same old thing, but as soon as this game gets redundant, I can get bored really quick and that’s not good for nobody. So I need to keep it fresh and interesting.”
Rose Namajunas wants to bring excitement back
Hopefully that new found potential for fear and challenge brings back the kind of performances that first made Rose Namajunas a star. The 31-year-old first rose to prominence way back in 2014, with a string of submission victories on the Ultimate Fighter. Coupled with a slow and steadily built reputation as one of the best boxers at 115 lbs in MMA, the result across her career has been that of a fighter capable of finishing opponents at any given moment.
That kind of reputation is what made her fight against Esparza so ridiculously frustrating. The two women, locked largely in a battle of distance striking that should have heavily favored Namajunas, spent the majority of the bout in a high stakes staring contest—with the Wisconsin native landing just 38 of her attempted 137 strikes over five rounds.
Fans could argue that she didn’t technically deserve to lose the fight, but from a performance aspect it certainly wasn’t a winning effort. Speaking recently to the NY Post, Namajunas explained the lessons shes taken from the loss. Most notably that professional fighting is supposed to be entertaining.
“It is part of my job,” Namajunas said, with respect to being an entertainer. “I’m not gonna take for granted that I have a special gift in that that’s what people watch me for. I want to give a little more appreciation to that and not just be like, ‘Screw you guys.’”
Between moving up in weight, trying to reignite her passion for fighting with aggression, and knowing that she needs to entertain as well, it’s a combination of factors that seems primed to put a lot of pressure heading into UFC Paris. Never mind the fact that she’s also got a dangerous opponent to beat.
Erin Blanchfield has gut feeling Rose Namajunas will lose
Maybe some of those factors were playing a part in Erin Blanchfield’s mind when she recently gave her thoughts about Rose Namajunas’ upcoming battle with Manon Fiorot. The New Jersey Native has found herself among the top contenders at flyweight, coming off her latest victory over former title contender Taila Santos at UFC Singapore this last weekend.
In a recent post-fight interview (transcribed by MMA Fighting) she spoke about why she feels she’s already the surefire contender for the belt, as well as why she doesn’t feel like Namajunas will walk away from this weekend’s contest with a victory. While other factors could be at play, it seems ‘Cold Blooded’ is mostly counting on the size factor.
“This definitely can make me the No. 1 contender for the title shot next,” Blanchfield explained, speaking of her victory over Santos. “I know Manon [Fiorot] and Rose [Namajunas] are fighting as well. But you know, Taila, people arguably thought she won that fight against Valentina [Shevchenko], and Rose and Manon, neither of them ever fought Valentina.
“Rose is new to the division, so I feel like this is my sixth win at flyweight and my last win was against a former champ, and this one was against someone who almost beat the champ, so I feel like I’m definitely next in line.”
“I have a feeling Manon’s going to win,” she added, when asked about the potential outcome of Namajunas vs. Fiorot. “She’s just a little bit bigger girl. I think Rose is a great fighter and you never know, either girl can win, but if I had a pick, I’d pick Manon.”
Fiorot does have two inches of height on Namajunas, while both women come in with a recorded 65″ reach. Still, Fiorot started her career competing at bantamweight before dropping down to the flyweight division, where she’s looked like a notably powerful physical force.
All of which circles back around to the original point here. A strawweight title shot seems like it would be right there, on the table, if that’s what Namajunas was interested in chasing. Instead, however, she’s taking a dive into a new division, with new challengers, and a potential to add an entirely different chapter to her legacy. Whether or not the risk will be worth the reward remains to be seen.
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